By Jonathan Crossfield published February 28, 2014

#Hashtagology 101: How to Use Hashtags in Your Social Media Content

hashtag image-blue circleIt took a while, but Facebook finally succumbed to the hashtag in June 2013. Now this humble little symbol can connect conversations on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Google+ and Pinterest.

Its impact on modern culture — even on our language — is so large that the American Dialect Society declared “hashtag” as Word of the Year in 2012.

But try explaining hashtags to someone who has never used them — it isn’t as easy as you might think. So welcome, class, to #Hashtagology 101. Settle down and open your textbooks. Please stop talking in the back — after all, that’s what the hashtag is for.

A hashtag history

In 2007, Twitter was a fast-moving stream of disconnected 140-character comments. It was possible for anyone to search Twitter for keywords, but whereas many tweets may contain the same keyword, not every tweet was about that keyword.

Some users brought order to this chaos by adopting a system from Internet Relay Chat networks — the hashtag. This began merely as a way for users to label tweets with a particular theme, group or topic.

In 2009, Twitter updated its system to make hashtags clickable, returning a search for all tweets containing the term. What started as an informal work-around among users became an integral part of the platform.

However, the hashtag has evolved into far more than a labeling system.

The hashtag and language

When someone tags a tweet as #FirstWorldProblems, is she making it easy for you to find all the whining, post-modern middle classers in one click? Or is she using the hashtag as a self-referential comment on her own tweet?

Ending a tweet with #FTW (“for the win”) is far more about adding a shorthand punch to the air than it is about grouping celebratory tweets into a single conversation.

And people intentionally create new hashtags every day that make no sense beyond that one specific update. These are not mistakes. People are using hashtags to add extra layers of meaning to their messages.

A hashtag can convey irony or sarcasm, suggest emotion or mood, pose an answer to an implied or rhetorical question, or even directly contradict the actual tweet. The effect can be humorous, provocative, informative, or mysterious. And it can do some or all of these simultaneously.

Just think about that for a moment. A new form of punctuation has joined our language, the use of which can enhance or transform the meaning of a sentence. That’s pretty mind-blowing.

The hashtag packs so much extra information and implied meaning into so few characters that it’s easy to see how it could only have risen to prominence on Twitter.

Social media word games are a great example of this multi-layered meaning. For example, #OneLetterMissingTV serves not only to label the conversation for people to follow, but provides the instructions for the game: Suggest a TV show that would be quite different if just one letter were missing. (My favorite is “Tar Trek: The ongoing adventures of a group of council roadmen” from @LeeAHarris.)

No wonder some people can be confused by the various nuances of this linguistic marvel. However, if your marketing involves social media content, you need to be fluent in the language. Misinterpreting a message or using hashtags incorrectly can make your brand seem as out of place as your uncle’s inappropriate dancing at a wedding. 

When hashtags go bad

Just like domain names, hashtags suffer from the same problems that arise when any sequence of words is run together without spaces.

Margaret Thatcher’s death in April 2013 provoked a huge amount of online discussion. She was a highly controversial and polarizing figure in British politics, so it wasn’t surprising for one of the most popular hashtags to become a trending topic:

#nowthatchersdead

If you live in the United States and read that sequence of letters, Margaret Thatcher may not pop into your head. You certainly wouldn’t be alone if you thought it actually read “#Now That Cher’s Dead.”

Confusion for many fans, and I’m sure a pretty weird day for the superstar singer.

Choosing the right hashtag is crucial if you don’t want to lose control of the message or, worse, invite ridicule.

Someone in British singer Susan Boyle’s PR agency obviously thought a hashtag promoting her new album launch would be a good idea, and #SusanAlbumParty would seem to make sense.

That is, until the lewd bum jokes started under the hashtag #susanalbumparty.

Always run your hashtag ideas past fresh eyes to spot these traps. 

Marketers and hashtags

Hashtags present a fantastic opportunity for content marketers to identify social media conversations relevant to their business and get their content in front of the right people.

Always check the hashtag first to see how much activity it receives, the sorts of content people share, and how well (or otherwise) such content is received. Not every conversation is welcoming to marketers. Is brand content shared or ignored? Or criticized? It’s advisable to only use a couple of hashtags in a post, so choose wisely.

However, resist the temptation to intrude too heavily on any conversation. It’s no more appropriate to spam hashtag followers with offers or self-serving content than it is anywhere else. Interaction still matters, so don’t post and run either. Posting to a single group too often or repetitively can turn a community against you, so it’s best to avoid using hashtags with bots and automated systems.

Hashtags are also the glue that holds many cross-platform competitions and campaigns together, making it easy for followers to submit content to be aggregated and displayed elsewhere, as discussed in my previous post.

However, always remember that the hashtag belongs to the community, even if you created it yourself. You can’t censor or control how others will use it, so be sensitive to situations that could fuel a hashtag backlash. 

Qantas discovered this in 2011 when it launched a social media competition with the hashtag #QantasLuxury in the middle of a controversial union dispute. At its height, 51 tweets per minute were sent containing the hashtag. The vast majority ridiculed or criticized the airline, creating a highly visible and wide-reaching PR disaster. 

Hashtags #FTW!

Used well, hashtags can be immensely powerful marketing tools. But as the wise uncle of Peter Parker once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Like any tool, we should treat them with respect, care, and plenty of consideration. Above all, the power of the hashtag should never be underestimated. This once rarely used character on the keyboard is rapidly becoming one of the mightiest punctuation marks in history.

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Chief Content Officer. Sign up to receive your free subscription to our quarterly magazine. 

Find more best practices and rules of engagement for working with today’s top social media platforms. Read our Content Marketer’s Guide to Social Media Survival: 50+ Tips.

Author: Jonathan Crossfield

If it involves putting words in a row with the occasional punctuation, then Jonathan has most likely given it a bash; from copy writing to screenwriting, blogging to journalism. He has won awards for his articles on digital marketing and his over-opinionated blog, Atomik Soapbox. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @Kimota.

Other posts by Jonathan Crossfield

  • http://hashimwarren.com/ Hashim Warren

    You nailed it, Jonathan. We’ve witnessed a new punctuation mark enter our language.

    Content marketers are missing an opportunity though. Hashtags can and should be used outside of social media.

    A hashtag in a blog post used to be cutesy. Now, it adds clarity.

    • http://www.jonathancrossfield.com Kimota

      I agree. There was a lot that didn’t make it into this article for length and one bit I hated to cut was about how common it is becoming to see people using hashtags in emails and other correspondence. I’m particularly guilty of this one, though usually for comic effect.

  • Ria Parish

    So weird. I literally published my very similar post a few hours ago this morning, submitted it to Inbound then saw yours 0_0. Your article is definitely more Americanised than mine though, being a Brit myself. I find the similarities and differences interesting. Great post btw :)

    http://www.silkstream.net/blog/2014/02/how-i-learned-to-love-the-hashtag.html

    • http://www.jonathancrossfield.com Kimota

      Ah, but I’m a Brit living in Australia writing for an American magazine. So I guess I’m just all over the place (like some of my writing).

      • Ria Parish

        Haha, no wonder your writing tone is so unique :)

  • http://www.tmrdirect.com/ Spencer Powell

    I almost laughed when I saw this post this morning…we must be thinking along the same lines: http://info.tmrdirect.com/howtohashtag

    Just wrote up a post on Hashtags. I liked the mini history section in this post.

  • Ehrlich Alba

    LOL SUS ANAL BUM PARTY. Still, good write up. The # is here to stay!

  • NancySJ

    I read this article when it came out in the magazine and found it a great primer. It reinforced some things I had learned on my own and taught me a few new ones! #thanks

    If I could make one correction, it would be to call the hashtag a symbol. It’s not a punctuation mark.

    • http://www.jonathancrossfield.com Kimota

      Aha! My point is that what was once a symbol has become a punctuation mark as by definition, a punctuation mark is a character that has a grammar and can influence the meaning of a sentence.

      • NancySJ

        I have to respectfully disagree! You obviously know your stuff when it comes to hashtag use, and perhaps we could argue that the hashtag has risen to the status of rock star symbol — but we can’t just make random declarations of new punctuation marks! Every punctuation mark has influence on the meaning of a sentence, yes, but not every influential element of a sentence is a punctuation mark. In some sense, my point is minor, because it doesn’t necessarily dilute the power of the hashtag — or your point. But it’s also major, because as we’re all striving to produce the most excellent content, part of that effort has to involve upholding the proper use of language.

        • http://www.jonathancrossfield.com Kimota

          No, not every element of a sentence is a punctuation mark. There are letters and numbers too. 😉 But while a symbol may have an individual and synonymous meaning (for instance a hashtag to denote ‘number’ or an ampersand as an alternative to ‘and’) a symbol doesn’t affect the meaning and grammar of the characters and sentence structure around it beyond that direct substitution.

          And although you’re right—I’m not the OED and my proclamation of a new punctuation mark isn’t going to immediately enshrine it as such—language evolves through usage.

          Believe me, I’m the first to uphold the proper use of language. Misuse an apostrophe at your peril if I have a sharp implement close to hand. But I’m also aware that for a new word to be recognised and listed in the OED, it needs to be shown to be in common usage first. Ditto the evolution of grammar and punctuation. These rules are not static, but are constantly changing.

          The rules don’t begat usage, usage begets the rules. (Well, usage that makes sense anyway. People still can’t defend bad writing by saying it’s the ‘evolution of usage’…). People have begun to use the hashtag as a form of punctuation, with its own grammar and syntax. Not consciously so, but it happens all the same. People write and speak without being conscious of the linguistic rules they use all the time.

          While I’m merely making a point, don’t be surprised if this is eventually recognised as such. I won’t be surprised in the least if there are genuine academic linguistic papers on the subject within the next few years.

  • James Perrin

    Cool, lots of good advice Johnathon. It’s so important to know how and when to use hashtags. I’ve noticed quite a lot of lazy advertising and marketing, especially on TV – they either add a hashtag or simply say ‘Like us on Facebook’ at the end – it makes no sense and there’s no incentive – there has to be a better strategy. I wrote a blog post on it recently, let me know what you think: http://www.koozai.com/blog/social-media/like-us-on-facebook/

  • http://www.jdamico.net/ JDamico

    Lol… funny stuff, Jonathan. Funny but true. The hashtag is part of pop culture. With numerous television shows and commercials
    referring to hashtags, the hashtag, as Erlich mentioned earlier, is #heretostay.

  • Paula Marie Young

    Love the Tonight Show’s use of the hashtag for comedy. People are creative.

  • http://www.globalcopywriting.com/ globalcopywrite

    Hi Jonathan,

    It was the hashtag that solidified my love affair with Twitter. I loved the whimsy it provides and, in the right hands, an almost poetic quality the other channels can’t match. (I’m a copywriter. We love brevity in communication.)

    Hashtags in reporting is super useful, as well. You touched on this when you talked about campaigns and competitions. While it’s highly annoying to see sports updates flood my stream during a big game, I love the immediacy of information flow when a hashtag is used to report news. I recently followed an important council meeting I was unable to attend in person because a reporter in attendance used a unique hashtag.

    Great article.

  • Gabriele Woodall

    Most marketers seem to believe they know all about hashtags – as it turns out, few of
    them truly do #missedopportunities. If only I could make this post required reading
    prior to the next client meeting…

  • Dana Shelton

    All this time I thought FTW meant f#cktheworld.. My apologies for the vulgarity but I know I’m not the only one who misinterprets that particular acronym.

    • http://www.jonathancrossfield.com Kimota

      Just another example where a hashtag can be read with two or more different meanings and care should be taken when selecting the most appropriate tag for your message. 😉

  • http://www.mightywrite.ca Leanne Fournier

    Love the humour in this post. I am trying to give a client best advice on how to hashtag a number of events under their brand. The events are geared at a local market, so my thought is that the hashtags really should just be creating a conversation within this smaller community. I’m scratching my head if it’s best to just hashtag all activities under the brand, in this case #innovatemanitoba or the individual events #imbootcamp, #imliftoff, etc. Help?

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  • leafitsuccess

    thanks for taking time to post this article. Very interesting facts. #leafitsuccess